Dancing for the Devil
chapter one SO YOU UNDERSTAND MY LINEAGE
When kids act out, it’s often the parents who get the blame. Whether the kids are getting in trouble in school or misbehaving with family, many parents worry they’re doing something wrong. But that may not always be the case.
Dr. Richard Friedman, professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College
There were times that I couldn’t forgive myself for what I put my parents through in my darkest days. It wasn’t until I realized that they were the first people to show me unconditional love, and they did that through their relationship with Jesus Christ, that I was able to understand the Father’s love and to forgive myself.
It is a commonly held belief that unborn children become aware of their world through the sounds they hear while in the womb. Thus, swollen and puffy soon-to-be mommas are encouraged to coo and sing nursery rhymes ad nauseam directly into their protruding tummies.
The mantras I heard while in my mother’s belly were a serenade of a different sort. Instead of lullabies, I heard eighteen
thousand pairs of feet stomping—WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!—in rhythm on metal bleachers and the pounding of bass drums in the percussion section of the Indiana Hoosiers’ basketball band. Adoring fans cheered and belted out, “Indiana, our Indiana, we’re all for you! Never daunted, we cannot falter, in the battle, we’re tried and true! Indiana, our Indiana, Indiana, we’re all for you! I-U!”
I arrived into this world screaming at the top of my lungs. Upon delivery, I had one arm above my head, my hand clenched into a triumphant fist. Perhaps it was the Donewald lineage, or perhaps it was the reverberations of the crowd I could hear and feel over and over during the NCAA basketball play-offs, but somehow I came into this world expecting fireworks, with the burning desire to let the spotlight shine on me.
I was the first child my father witnessed being born. For his three previous children’s births, he had been forced to wait in the lobby with the other expectant fathers. I picture him with a cigar in his hand, although he never smoked, as each of my siblings was handed to him neatly wrapped in a baby-blue or pastel-pink blanket. Not me. From the very beginning, my dad, the conservative Christian basketball coach, saw me messy, bloody, and hollering. He took the sterilized metal clamps and snipped the lifeline umbilical cord that connected me to my mother and forever made me his. My father has always helped transition me from one life event to the next. Sometimes that involved yanking and cutting and sometimes it involved holding me in his arms to keep me sheltered from the world. What he would come to understand is that he wouldn’t have arms big enough to free me from the darkness that my life would become.
My birth on November 15, 1977, made the national media
two days later. It provided good color commentary as my dad coached an exhibition game against the Soviet national team: his boys at IU beat the Soviets in front of a sold-out Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. It was a big week for Dad, the entire state of Indiana, and American basketball fans. It was the season Billy Joel released the jukebox favorite “Only the Good Die Young,” a song that would become an anthem for my life. But I am getting ahead of myself.
My father met my mother, Kathy, on a blind date in the spring of 1967 in South Bend, Indiana, the home of the Studebaker and the Fighting Irish. Dad was the head basketball coach at St. Joseph’s Catholic High School, where he also taught economics to the junior and senior classes. Mom was an ICU nurse at Memorial Hospital of South Bend who had risen through the ranks to head of the department.
My mother was a natural beauty with a petite but strong frame and narrow face. She wore her hair in a pixie hairdo that bore a resemblance to Goldie Hawn’s during the Laugh-In era. Her brown bangs hung above big blue eyes that were framed by long brown lashes. She wore very little makeup, just a hint of rose on her thin cheeks, a brush or two of mascara, and a glimmer of Avon pink lip gloss. She dressed in below-the-knee wool pencil skirts. Her preppy collared shirts peeked out from underneath the sweaters she would knit. She resembled an Ivy Leaguer who knew how to keep her ankles crossed beneath the chair when eating dinner or listening to the preacher in church.
She was unlike the girls my dad had dated when he played basketball at Hanover College. She exuded the subtle seriousness that comes from growing up in a wealthy, educated Boston family and ultimately working in a hospital where she dealt with life-or-death patients and their IVs and bedpans.
My dad and mom were both in their midtwenties when they sat down for dinner at a restaurant that was far out of my father’s budget. He drank a Tom Collins and she sipped a scotch on the rocks. The lights were low as my mother raised her eyebrow and asked with watered-down wit, “You get paid to coach basketball?” She knew nothing about sports or his competitive, masculine world, nor did she like it. Then my father announced he had planned a small gathering that evening after dinner at his house to watch the NCAA play-offs. She found the entire encounter Neanderthalish.
“A basketball coach?” my grandmother Dorothy mocked in her heavy Boston accent no one in our family could ever understand. “Is he an eccentric man-child, or does he just not have the wherewithal or breeding to be a good lawyer, doctor, or CPA?”
Although she was in a loftier social league and perhaps out of his dating comfort zone, my dad instantly fell in love with my mother’s candor, dry sense of humor, and unwavering righteousness.
Dad had grown up poor with an absentee father who had a wandering eye—he was particularly fond of pretty ladies with Marilyn Monroe’s silhouette—and an unwavering dedication to never, ever leave a whiskey glass untouched.
My grandmother Alleene essentially raised my dad and his two siblings, older brother Jack and younger sister Sandy. My dad doesn’t talk
much about his childhood, and when I pressed him for details, he told me that they were a typical family of the 1940s and 1950s. Although they struggled financially, their lives were sled races in the snow, neighborhood basketball games, sock hops, and family dinners with aunts and uncles who filled in the gaps that were left by his father’s carousing and his mother’s having to work.
I’ve only once heard him speak about the real tragedy in his childhood, the loss of his brother, Jack. He spoke quietly and deliberately about it to my sister as I pretended to be asleep on the couch. I was about seven years old, but the tone of his voice has stayed with me my entire life.
He told her of the Christmas holiday of 1959. The snow was two feet deep along the driveway and icicles hung from the rain gutters on their old house on Sylvan Lane in Carmel, Indiana. Sometime after midnight he heard the upstairs phone ring. My father stood in his bedroom doorway, watching his mother, in her light-blue nightgown, make her way through the dark hallway and pick up the black Mountain Bell receiver to hear the horrible news: his nineteen-year-old brother had been killed in an airplane crash as he was traveling back to his naval ship. My dad stood silently as his mother collapsed to her knees, wailing uncontrollably.
I believe we all have these moments that change us forever, moments when life hurls baseball-sized hail onto the glass ceiling that is our innocence, and everything that is naive and good becomes tarnished and broken. When the devil comes to steal our hope and faith. I wonder now which was worse for him, losing his brother or watching his mother shrivel in pain and despair in the months that followed?
Thankfully for my dad, he used his juggernaut of emotions to springboard himself into the knowledge that he wanted more out of life. He found release, peace, challenge, and comfort within the confines and rules of the game of basketball. Methodically throwing basketball after basketball into a hoop has always been his therapy, and the court became his sanctuary. He wanted success and the safety of a strong household for the family—as if anything can truly make a household safe. He wanted to equip his children in the ways of the Lord and create a trauma-free environment for them, and he was determined to do so. He would break the mold of his family’s disappointing, runaway male role models. He would support and nurture the people he loved.
There is an old saying about marriage: if the two of you are the same, one isn’t necessary. My parents were from different sides of the tracks but complemented each other. She possessed a worldly charm that his family could never afford. He deliberately spent the first nine months of their courtship trying to impress her. He took her to lovely dinners and ballroom dancing, sent her weekly bouquets of roses, and attended Sunday service with her at church. And much to the disappointment of my mother’s family, she married a basketball coach instead of a surgeon on April 6, 1968, in front of three hundred black-tie spectators at First Presbyterian Church.
Their first child, Lisa, was born almost exactly nine months later. “Were you pregnant when you got married?” I once asked my mother, hoping to find an ounce of imperfection in her as she rocked my second child, a boy I had birthed out of wedlock. She looked me in the eye and responded unequivocally, “No.” Then she lifted my son up to smell his diaper and compassionately continued,
“And in fact when I returned from our honeymoon, and my time of the month started, I cried to your father that at twenty-five years old, I had waited too long to have a baby.” I was taken aback by her vulnerability.
My parents were God-fearing, private people who didn’t talk about adult things with their children and tried to keep a protective bubble around each one of us. When my eldest sister, Lisa, was born, my mother gave up nursing to be a stay-at-home mom and basketball wife. There was no time for the man who called the plays for six-foot-two college prospects to be changing diapers, and some would have considered it downright inappropriate. But I believe my dad would have done anything that my mother asked him to do.
Although she has always stood in the shadow of my father’s successes, my mother is hardly a wallflower. At five foot one, she is a powerful force. Equal parts cunning, caring, and calm, she has always been my father’s right-hand woman. Nothing comes between them. Even to this day they are a united front. No job, game, in-laws, child, temptation, or catastrophe can break their bond. They lived what they taught us from the good book: “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” And no one ever did.
My mother’s goal has always been to have my father’s back.
For better or worse. They shared a deep love for each other and God and regularly read the Bible to us kids. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. Joshua 24:15” was printed on a canvas and hung above the fireplace in our house. They wanted us to be good, grounded Christians. My mother was the one saddled with the day-to-day responsibility of keeping the children in line. And up until I was born, she was doing a pretty good job.
I am the youngest of four siblings. An “oops” baby. My mom called me “her precious surprise.” Each of her children had been good. And it wasn’t until I came along that the hurricane of chaos was unleashed on them. They were used to life being stable and controllable, with their well-behaved ducklings walking neatly in a row. Quack, quack, quack.
First there was my sister Lisa. She has always held the role of mini-mom in our sibling hierarchy. A straight A student who was never in trouble and wouldn’t dream of rocking the boat, good ol’ Lisa grew up to be a schoolteacher. My brother, Bob Jr., was born one year after Lisa, in 1970.
Bob Jr. was my partner in crime. Despite our eight-year age difference, the two of us got into heaps of trouble. We both carry the crazy-competitive daredevil gene. I remember being in a red Radio Flyer wagon, tied to the back of his bike, zooming down the largest hill in the neighborhood screaming, “Faster, faster!” I was three years old. Bob Jr. followed in my father’s coaching footsteps, working in the NBA and serving as the Chinese national head coach. Then there was my sister Kristin. Born in 1972, she is the sensitive and introverted one who is embarrassed by half of the stuff that flies out of my mouth. She was my parent’s sweet baby girl until I came along and booted her into the ranks of the
middle child. Today she’s a midwife, and I would say she is the brainiest of us all.
In early 1970, the head basketball coach from the United States Military Academy, a man who was aptly nicknamed “the General,” came to visit St. Joe’s in South Bend. He had made the recruiting trip himself, as he wanted to see firsthand the coach who was turning out incredible defensive players.
My mom told me about the General sitting next to her during a game as she kept her statistics board on her lap and methodically jotted down the details of points accrued and passes and fouls for my father. “He’s got a great defensive mind,” the General told my mother, never looking directly at her. “He’s getting them to play better than they are.” She simply smiled and nodded, as this was something that she already knew. She also understood that having this particular man sitting next to her was no coincidence. She believed that God had a plan for our family. When my father was invited to work at the General’s basketball camp at West Point that summer, she made sure he went. The two coaches quickly became friends.
The coach known as the General was none other than Bob Knight. He would eventually leave the army for Indiana University. My dad and Coach Knight’s bond grew stronger over the next three years as they worked together during the summers on the west bank of the Hudson River. A few seasons into his tenure at Indiana, the General found himself at our dinner table, as he had many times before, but this time, while my mother served
them lasagna, Coach Knight had come to speak to my father about his next job.
My father liked Coach Knight because he was black-and-white like my dad. There were no gray areas when it came to right and wrong. There was just good and there was evil. Winners and losers. Both men were intense virtuosos. “He’s hiring you because he doesn’t have to train you,” my mother remembers saying to my dad as she washed the dishes that night. “He respects you as much as you respect him. I like that.”
At the time of Coach Knight’s job offer, my father was making $16,000 per year as a high school coach and teacher. Moving to IU meant a $2,000 pay cut and losing both a good pension plan and the insurance provided by the school district.
I had a rare moment of one-on-one with Dad recently and used it to talk about the thing that we both love and is a safe subject: basketball. I asked him why he took the job at IU. He dipped his doughnut in black coffee, smiled, and said, “I took the job because I was from Indiana. Everyone in that day wanted to coach with Bob Knight.” My mom came into the room and stood behind him, adding, “With your sister, your older brother, and Kristin already born, it was difficult, but we took a pay cut to join the Hoosiers. Your dad bet on himself and the talent that God had provided him.” She has an uncanny way of finishing his thoughts.
A few years later, my father was a well-known assistant coach who had his own radio show in Bloomington, which was unheard-
of for an assistant. Coach Knight was steadily becoming a college basketball icon at Indiana University. The Hoosiers were incredibly dominant, going undefeated for the regular season as well as sweeping the NCAA Tournament and taking home the National Basketball Championship trophy by crushing Michigan. There hasn’t been a team since that has matched that achievement. My father learned from a man some would say is the best college basketball coach in history. Coach Knight and my father were winners. Winning was part of my early education and was modeled by the men around me.
After the championship, my father was a sought-after commodity for vacant head coaching jobs. Athletic directors from around the country strolled through the tan shag carpeting in our small living room and sat on our flowered tapestry couches to woo my dad with promises of big money, radio shows, cars, private schools for us kids, and big bonuses for signing on the dotted line. He had his pick of head coaching positions, which is rare at the collegiate coaching level. He didn’t want to move, as he liked the success and job security he had at IU. Make no mistake, however: he was driven. Complacent is not a word you would ever hear used to describe my dad. He may have been second in command at IU, but the work kept him challenged. He was always learning. He was able to keep pushing himself to the next level. The qualities that kept him successful at IU are perhaps what kept him from giving up on me despite how very uncomfortable I made him.
My parents weighed every option, grounded in God and what was right or wrong for the family. Decisions were not made based on money or stature. It didn’t matter whether it was a
speaking engagement or a coaching job; he made his decision based on the Lord and what he believed to be honorable. He and my mother both have a code of ethics that could not be swayed or purchased, and they worked hard to teach that to their children.
My mother said they sat and prayed about which job my dad should take, all their children in a circle on the floor, with me in my father’s arms and a Bible open in his hands.
He prayed, “Lord God, we come to You and humbly ask that You guide our steps for what is honorable and pleasing to You. Let our life be not about the game or superficial details but let it be a life of goodness and honor. Lord, let every door be open that You would want open and let every door be closed that You want closed. Help us to make a clear decision for this family. Help plant us in a city to be a blessing to others. Help us to join a university family where we can make a difference on and off the court. Lord we humbly ask You to hear us and guide our plans. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
Then, with a clear view, they made a decision. Although there were bigger programs that had come to the table, they were moving us somewhere normal. Literally. When I was six months old, Dad took the head coaching position at Illinois State University. We moved from Bloomington, Indiana, to Normal, Illinois.
I always laugh when people at the Porn Convention or a XXX show ask me where I grew up. I just chuckle at them and say, “Normal.”